The Big Country

A Critique of the Motion Picture

Richard Franklin Bishop

© Copyright 2022 by Richard Franklin  Bishop

Photo from Google free photos.
Photo from Google free photos.      

A Critique of the Motion Picture : The Big Country (1958)
 Romance, Western

 William Wyler

Music: Jerome Moross
Writer: James R. Webb, Sy Bartlett, Robert Wilder
Stars: Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, Carroll Baker, Charlton Heston, Burl Ives, Chuck Connors

The overall story. A New England Sea Captain in the 1880s arrives at his fiancée's sprawling Texas ranch, where he becomes caught up in a feud between two families over a valuable patch of land through which runs a River………very valuable when running a Cattle Ranch.

I saw this movie and was impressed with the land so wide that a giant movie screen could not provide enough space to encompass it - but could only show tiny bits of it. Aside from the following mild critique, it was an excellent film and the music was notable in that it set the stage for giant soundtracks as might be used for epic films of the ilk by Cecil B. DeMille.

Herein, I am concentrating on a sub-plot of the script that generated about 20 minutes of the film and was a direct consequence of our Hero’s past service in maritime travels as a Sea Captain. I believe that the writers missed a good chance to lean heavily on the history of Navigation . . . namely, it’s tools were just as useful around The Big Country as they had been at sea.

The ex-Sea Captain (played by Gregory Peck) was handed over by the Ranch Owner (an ex-MAJOR of the Army and Father of the Fiancée) to the Ranch Foreman (played by Charlton Heston - who was secretly in love with the Ranch Owner’s Daughter) to establish his living arrangements while staying at the Ranch until the Wedding. It goes without saying that the Foreman will become the Cat that toys with a Mouse instead of a provider of excellent hospitality.

For instance, when the Sea Captain asks for a horse to ride around the countryside, the Foreman gives him the meanest beast that they owned. While all the Ranch Hands were out rounding up cattle, our Hero solves that problem by stubbornly re-climbing on board numerous times after being pitched off - until the Horse was worn out and obeyed him . . . . all in secret except for a Mexican Ranch Hand who saw with awe the whole heroic process. A Skipper of a sailing vessel in the 1800s (where there were no Unions for the Ordinary Seaman to arbitrate his grievances) who faces possible Mutiny on a daily basis has a kind of toughness leading to perseverance that a mere untamed horse could not soften !

Then he took the horse and some provisions and, saying that he wanted to scout out the country, left the ranch and was gone for several days. The Mexican Ranch Hand told both the Major and the Foreman, that our Hero had said, when he got on the horse, that all would be well as long as he had a curious looking “watch” that he was carrying along with a map that he had been given in town at the Train Station.

Here, I use my imagination fix the Manuscript, slightly, where it is wanting For the next few days, the Ranch went crazy with the Fiancée paining about letting her future Husband loose in a half-desert land of 10,000 acres and with no landmarks. The result was the sending out of large search parties one after another. . . . all with negative results. The Foreman got grumpy, then angry, because all his men were being worn to a frazzle searching and were letting their normal work slip.

When, at last, he turned up unscathed and not dying of thirst (because he had found the River right where the Map said it would be) he made light of his trip and described the country-side eloquently to a visiting party of neighbors who happened to be there at the Ranch when he showed up. This was “arrogance of the worst kind” the Foreman said and for him to pretend that he was not ever lost was just a quickly dreamed-up lie! He called him a LIAR right out loud and challenged him to “put up his dukes and defend himself”. Our Hero said: “No thank you. You just want to show off to an audience in front of my future wife. I’ll pass now on this issue - but right here and now, as a Gentleman, I proclaim my word to you and to all who hear me that, I will give you full satisfaction some other time and place”.

Later, when alone with the Major, he said: “Major, as an educated man, you must have known that a Sea Captain is required to know the science of Navigation.” Using the Constellations as his guide and with a good Compass (that curious little “Watch” of mine as the Mexican Ranch Hand called it) and with fairly accurate maps, he can never be lost and will find his way - - all over the World ! I have Captained several sailing ships on many trips to the Orient without problems. This big country of yours gave me no problems, as well. I’m sure you could have calmed both your Daughter and your ignorant Foreman by citing these well known facts to them. The concerned Search Parties were totally a waste of time and effort”.
The MAJOR said: “Yes - now as I look back, you are right” and mumbled something about overlooking all that in the hectic of his battle with a neighbor that had become a full blown feud. The ex-Skipper continued: “I could have made these same remarks in front of that audience that was there when I came back - but I did not want to seem like I was putting you (my esteemed Host) down for not thinking of and telling your neighbors and employees about the historical background of geographical orientation.”

As for “full satisfaction some other time and place,” it was not long in taking place. One morning, the Foreman was awakened by a loud knocking on his door. When he opened it, there stood the Sailing Skipper saying: “I came to say GOODBY to you in private and to keep my word about “putting up my Dukes”. The Foreman pointed out back to a hilly place behind the house. They walked silently a ways and then the Foreman whirled around taking a boxer’s stance. They fought for about a half hour with the Skipper slightly ahead. The Foreman said all covered in sweat: “This is the longest GOODBY that I have ever bespoken.” They left each other the wiser and IN RESPECT; the Foreman no longer carried a chip on his shoulder . . . . either about losing the possibility of getting the Daughter for himself or about the honesty of her future Husband.

THE MORAL OF MY “FIX” TO THIS STORY: Science and Technology go hand in hand and one should never take for granted that the masses are “keeping up” with the oldest techniques being used for some purpose or the newest changes to them. It is especially important to recognize that certain techniques may be Centuries old but still so effective that they are used regularly by laymen in their daily rounds. So it is with NAVIGATING a Ship (or an Airplane or an Automobile or a Horse).


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